small pieces of joy

pieces of joy in each day

the third

Monday marked the third anniversary of Dad’s passing from this world to the next.

The third year without Dad. Wow.

It seems like such a long time, but remembering the events from three years ago feels like just yesterday.

The past two years we have remembered Dad’s memorial day with something special. A service at the gravesite the first year, KSU football game and dinner at Texas Roadhouse the next.

This year I wanted to do something specific in honor of Dad, but it was hard to figure out what that would be.

We had a steak dinner at Mom’s and simply enjoyed family time, even though my youngest brother couldn’t make it.

I went home, put the kids to bed, and still felt like I needed to do something more to make the day feel complete. I had wanted to go to the gravesite by myself before dinner, but my husband got home late from work so I couldn’t do that. Then I was going to go after the kids went to bed, but now it gets dark early.

On a whim I left the house and drove to our church’s adoration chapel, thinking I had the code to get in. Nope. Wrong code. So I sat outside of the chapel, wondering if this was a sign or if I should wait for someone to come and let me in. After about 10 minutes I just decided to drive for a while and ended up in the cemetery at twilight.

Only a little creepy.

I turned the car off, started talking to Dad, then had a major cry-my-heart-out-tears-on-the-steering-wheel sob fest. As I was letting it all out, I still felt lost, like I needed to do something else.

I called my mom, and was at her house a few minutes later.

She held me and we cried. Cried about missing Dad, cried about the good memories, cried about the things he was missing, cried about what we thought he might be like today, cried about the whole crappy situation.

It was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time.

The thing is…grief is complicated. There is no amount of time to make losing my Dad OK. Just because it is three years out does not mean I’m not still hurting. Yes, I’m getting much better about living my life without him. I’ve come to terms he is not here and will not be here.

But I’m still hurting.

It hurts that I had to see him decline over 10 months, that I was a new mom, living in a different state, trying to juggle all my roles, while cancer was slowly sucking the life out of my big strong hero.

That will never be OK with me.

And all those things I mentioned are things I haven’t had time to really process. Because unfortunately, life continues to move after loss. So it takes a while to get to a place where the shock, agony, and pain can come through and be truly felt.

No, I am not stuck. No, I’m not dwelling on the loss. I’m actually moving forward in the best way I know how.

The best way for ME.

I’m learning about grief, I’m allowing myself to feel, and I’m sharing with others in hopes they can work through their pain too.

These past few years have been the most challenging years of my life, and looking back, also the years in which I have grown the most. For that I’m thankful.

The third year without Dad. Another step forward on a long path to healing.

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donuts with dad

Two years without Dad.

It seems like forever and also just yesterday, like most memories, I guess.

About a month before September 19th I called my mom and decided to visit home over ‘THE day’. We made plans to visit my youngest brother at college and go to the football game to watch him march in the band. We scheduled family time in order to see as many family members as possible in a 2.5 day stretch. We were looking forward to my visit–which trumped the dread.

The weekend was wonderful. Yes, I did say wonderful, strangely enough. The quality time I was allowed gave me so much joy. Laughing, talking, enjoying family. Something I just don’t get enough of while living so far away.

Sisterly pride swelled when I saw my little brother–a shiny speck on the field–marching in the best band in the nation. When the band played the 1812 Overture I thought I felt my dad’s presence standing next to me. I imagined looking at him and sharing a proud smile. It was a treasured moment accompanied by tears and a few goosebumps.

We met up with Kirk after the game for a fun family dinner with a toast to Dad, right around the exact time of his passing two years prior.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed for early mass, then did a Dunkin’ stop before visiting the cemetery. What started as a simple desire for a breakfast snack turned into a donut date with Dad.

We stood around his gravesite and ate donut holes, drank coffee, and talked about our dearly departed loved one. Stories about how awesome he was were shared. What would he be like at a KSU football game? How would he be with George? Happy and sad tears streamed down our faces. We shared how our grieving process is going and things we’ve tried, failed at, and what we’re learning.

I mentioned that a priest told me that year two of grief is actually the hardest. Year one is simply survival mode–you’re just grasping at anything you can do to make yourself feel some sort of normal, and often there is emotional numbness as a protection. Year two is when you’re starting (maybe—everyone is different) to crawl out of the dark hole a little, and as the emotional numbness and survival mode fades, the emotions become stronger and you feel the loss more deeply in a more real way.

No wonder this year felt worse. Harder. Almost like a step back.

But those words from my priest, the wonderful weekend, and our donut date with dad, really made me step back and think.

We have come a long way in these two years. We’ve experienced a myriad of emotions. And we’re still standing. We’re still smiling, laughing, working, loving, caring.

And now ‘Donuts with Dad’ will be our family thing. It will be our way of coming together to spend time with Dad and share how we’re still loving him every day. How we’re continuing his legacy. And how we’re going to love each other through it.

Tears, crazy, and all.

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blessed are they who mourn

Right now I’m thinking of those who are mourning the loss of a loved one.

I just finished a long sobbing, blubbering, saltwater pool forming, cry. it felt so sad and so good at the same time.

I really really miss my dad. Of course you all know that. And perhaps some are tired of hearing about it. But I can’t deny it.

I miss him with all my being. Even when I’m not aware that I miss him, I do.

My heart aches for those whose hearts ache from loss. Because I know what it feels like, a little.

I know what it feels like to feel alone even when surrounded by people. I know what it feels like to hear others talk about their dad and the twinge of sadness attacks. I know what it feels like to be happy with life, but sad a huge part is missing.

And I know what it feels like to simply want to cry. Sobbing, blubbering, and saltwater pool forming.

I want you to know that it’s OK to form pools of saltwater.

It’s letting the sadness out to allow room for happiness. 

I’m sending some prayers for you if you’re like me and missing someone today. Know that I’m thinking of you and offering your sadness with mine. We will be comforted, even in the slight relief felt after crying.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” –Matthew 5:4

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words of remembrance

As I’ve been working through my grief, I’m saddened I wasn’t able to give words of remembrance in the days following Dad’s passing from this life to the next. I’ve found that I wish I could have said something to everyone who came to his visitation. I wish I could have said something to everyone who prayed for his soul at this funeral mass. I wish I could have given tribute to dad with words from my heart.

Looking back I know there were many reasons why it didn’t happen. Everything worked out the way it needed to in those moments. Some people, myself included, were able to say things to Dad at his Celebration of Life party. That just wasn’t enough for me, especially since he was driving his electronic wheelchair away from me as I spoke!

I guess it is never too late to write the words I would have liked to share with everyone eighteen months ago. And it is fitting that I will speak about his life on this day, March 8th, the day he entered this world in 1959. Here goes.

“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”

These words from Clarence Budington Kelland sent goose bumps running all over me when I read them recently. I silently whispered, “That’s what my dad did.”

I didn’t really have a lot of heart to heart conversations with Dad about living life. But I really didn’t have to.

Dad taught me about life by living it.

By taking us on inexpensive, meaningful family vacations.

By showing me how to put a worm on a hook when fishing.

By helping me oil my glove, and always being my catcher.

By building our swing set and deck with his own hands (and a few helpers).

By helping us fly kites in the open field behind our house.

By showing us how to ‘box out’ at basketball practice and yelling a few intense instructions during a game.

By watching a Chiefs game with the TV announcer muted and the radio announcer blaring. (And yelling a few intense instructions during the game).

By clapping proudly after every sports game and band concert—especially after my adult dodge ball games!

By playing board games with the family and working his business skills to trade one wheat for two sheep.

By claiming every sports movie is his favorite because he loves the underdog. And watching them over and over and over and over.

By playing in the parents band, proudly banging on the drum that gave him so much joy.

By taking leadership positions even when the job is not easy and sometimes goes unnoticed.

By making the difficult call because it is the right one.

By being a man of few words, but making those few words speak thousands.

By respecting and working with people of all nations, creeds, and backgrounds.

By saying his name with confidence, followed by a strong handshake.

By lying down on the floor next to his crying daughter, reassuring her that things will get better.

By letting his daughter move into a shady apartment during college, even though he had huge reservations—and then letting her move out of the house before having a job!

By saying, “I’m proud of you buddy” after he spent a few days with his brand new grandson.

By allowing people into his cancer journey, accepting all forms of help and encouragement, and at the same time paying those gifts forward. And buying lottery tickets for the radiation nurses!

By going to confession for the first time in over 10 years, and then speaking to me about forgiveness.

By letting me teach him to pray the rosary when he couldn’t remember anymore.

By gracefully letting God take him Home.

As someone wrote in a sympathy card to our family, “He was honest, thorough, and trustworthy. There were only two types of people—those that didn’t know him or those that called him friend.”

I do not believe it was God’s will for Dad to have cancer. But God sure did use the fact he had cancer to show us more good and beauty in this world than I ever thought possible. All of our friends and family were God’s hands and feet on earth, showing His love during the most difficult time of our lives. We are now able to see how God used Dad to teach us loyalty, friendship, leadership, and LOVE.

I miss you, Dad, everyday. I’m working hard to continue the legacy you began and I hope to teach George and my future children the way you taught me. By living.

“I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” –John 10:10

If you have some memories or words of remembrance you’d like to share with my son, George, so he will know his Papa better, please send them to george.j.ashley@gmail.com. I know he, and my family, would be forever grateful for your sharing of memories!

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support with action

do things with love

Yesterday I shared a blog post discussing the phrase, “Let me know if you need anything,” as a response when we hear of someone facing a difficult challenge.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I woke up at two in the morning and wrote four pages in my journal about the topic, feeling inspired the whole time to share my thoughts on the blog. Not because I don’t say the phrase, I do.  I am becoming much more aware when I say it, and I’m working on turning my words into action. Especially since there were many times during Dad’s sickness, and mourning his death, where I have learned the importance of action to show support.

I want to share the many ways people did take those words and put them into action for me and my family. I’d also like to share how I am working on tangibly showing support to people I know facing difficult times.

So here is what I wrote early this morning. I hope you find some inspiration and feel more empowered to help those in need more tangibly, and learn that asking for/accepting help is a sign of strength which gives others an opportunity to do good.

“The post I shared on Facebook yesterday struck a chord with me because of the post’s accuracy.

While this phrase does let people know you care and want to help–

we sometimes don’t know what we need,

aren’t comfortable telling the little, and big, things we might need help with,

and will forget who offered!

And that is such a lost opportunity for both the offerer (losing a chance to do good for someone), and the one struggling (losing a chance for some much needed help.)

Some of the best things people did for me and my family while Dad was sick, and even a year later, were the things we didn’t ask for, or that we finally learned we were worthy of asking for.

  • visits from friends, family, and other random guests
  • gift cards to grocery store, local restaurants, gas stations
  • meals multiple times a week
  • cards almost daily of well wishes and sometimes silly things
  • emails/texts/phone calls asking how we were doing
  • cleaning our house, fixing things, while we were gone on vacation!
  • donating a maid service
  • putting up christmas lights/yard work

The list could continue, if I spent more time thinking.

Living 600 miles away I sometimes felt displaced from the support my family was getting, but my friends found ways to help me even from a distance. They organized so one person would write me a letter each week. Sometimes they were filled with encouraging words, other times it was a simple update on life. I loved how those letters brought a little of normal back into my life when things felt anything but. A local friend gave me a care package full of snacks, relaxing spa masks, a funny movie, a magazine, and other things that made me smile. Another friend would bring food over or come have tea and just listen to me talk about everything or nothing. Someone sent me a book of inspiring quotes. I also received cards, gift cards, and notes reminding me they were praying for me and my family.

There were times where I wondered if anyone cared. If people really did want to support me, or if they even knew how difficult life was for me.

All of these things, these actions, were big and small ways to physically show me that people cared, that they did know my life was hard at that moment, and they were walking with me.

In times when I am so lost within my struggle, it is my biggest desire to see a glimmer of hope–in a phone call, a card, a meal, in a bag of gummy bears.

That is what I really need. HOPE. Knowing I am not alone in my struggle.

Now what? How can we start being more intentional with helping those who need support?

Here is how I’ve been working to actively provide support for someone going through a difficult time. Remember, I’m not very good at this, but I’m trying.

I love numbered lists, so you’re getting one today.

1. Identify the situation and place yourself there—what would YOU need?

What would make a hospital room feel more cozy? What would bring a smile to my face if I were deeply sad? What would help me relax in the midst of caring for a sick loved one? If you know someone who has been in that situation—ask them for what helped. I have researched online ideas for care packages and gifts for people in different situations. It can be a great springboard for ideas.

2. Decide what you are best able to do.

You know your strengths, so use them in this situation! Are you able to make a meal for the family? Would sending a meal (Jack Stack!) or gift card for food better fit your comfort zone or the family’s schedule? Can you send a card periodically letting them know you’re thinking of them? Are you good at spending time with people? Can you call, visit, email once a week to check in? Can you commit to praying for them daily or offer a small sacrifice in their honor? Can you pull them out of their mess for an hour and take them shopping or to a movie? Can you drive them or a family member somewhere? Or babysit the kids for an hour? Are you good at yard work or handy around the house? Maybe you could wash their sheets and towels? If you don’t have a lot of money to send gifts, what can you do for them that doesn’t cost anything?

The options are so large once I started noticing the things my family needed that had almost nothing to do with caring for/missing Dad. It was all about helping to make life easier, no matter how small the task.

3. Communicate with the person/family what you want to do.

Sometimes a thing you want to do might be too personal or might not fit exactly what the family wants, so talking with them (or if there is a contact person organizing help) is important. We had many friends who told us what they were going to do, and it was awesome! They didn’t ask, “Do you want me to go to the grocery store for you?” they said, “I’m dropping some groceries off at your house today, what can I get you?” This was amazing because it left little room to feel guilty, or for us to say no to something we really needed. The one I loved the most was, “I’m taking you out, what day and time are you available?” How can I say no to that??

Obviously every person/family is different. But I feel even discerning the tangible ways you can support will begin to take the words of “let me know if you need anything” closer to action.

An action of love and support that will give people what they need.”

What are some other actions of support you would suggest? What helped you when you were going through a tough time? 

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meltdown

So George isn’t the only one who is perfecting the public meltdown.

I’ve been working with my eye doctor for over six weeks to figure out the right contact prescription and brand. I’ve been going in almost once a week and after many tweaks and tries this week’s visit wasn’t any better.

As I sat down at the table after putting in my second trial pair for the day, I told her that it still wasn’t right. Then I started crying uncontrollably. Yes, there were sobs.

In between wiping the tears away and taking breaths I managed to explain that my dad had recently passed away and I was having a very hard time making any sort of decision. She stayed very composed, although at one point she did say I was going to make her cry. But in her doctor voice she asked if I had been crying a lot recently, and in my head I was saying “DUH” but to her I said, yes, about every day.

She then explained the science behind our tears and the tear film, which she said might be a little dry because of all the crying, which could affect how contacts felt on my eyes. That explains why nothing I tried felt right.

I calmed down a little, and we came up with a plan that would allow me to try two different prescriptions at home and then I could just call in when I’ve decided which ones I like. No more coming back. No more stress.

I left with a splotchy face, bloodshot eyes, accompanied with a slight smile. I was really embarrassed by my public emotional breakdown, but glad that I felt I was being heard and taken care of. I never thought Dad’s passing would affect picking out contacts.

But it affects everything.

Thankfully my doctor handled it with compassion and understanding. That’s all I ask for these days, since I feel like a hot mess ball of crazy.

So the next time you have a meltdown in public, remember you’re not the only one! 😉

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brokenhearted

 

Yesterday was a rough day.

I was crying on and off almost the entire day and I really couldn’t pinpoint one specific reason except for I was really missing Dad.

The past few weeks have been full of memories from last year so I have been reading through my journal entries and blog posts. It has been good to remember all the great things we were able to do as a family and experience. But is has been sad to remember really how awful things were last year.

In my saddened state I went back to Dad’s caringbridge site and began reading through the entire journey. I was so excited to read Dad’s posts because I could still hear his voice and see his face as I read his accounts of radiation and the days following. He was so positive, thankful, and was thinking of others during almost every post. That was my Dad.

My heart broke when his posts stopped and more sad, bad news posts began.

I guess I didn’t really know how heartbroken I really am. Or I didn’t let myself feel it. But last night, after shutting off my computer I just cried and cried. I kept thinking about how much I miss him. How much he went through. How horrible it must have been for him to know what was coming. Yet he stayed so positive. He couldn’t wait to beat cancer so he could go back to work! He couldn’t wait to beat it so he could pay it forward to others.

I am amazed at how we got through that difficult time. I guess because we were in the trenches we were just making it day to day in order to survive. Now I’m out of it looking in and just can’t believe what happened. I can’t believe that he won’t be coming back. And as we get closer and closer to a year of him being gone, it will feel ever more permanent.

I don’t want to accept living in a world where Dad isn’t physically here.

But I’m going to have to.

“The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

As today goes on, I have been feeling better. I wrote in my journal, hashed some things out with God, and was led to that verse from Psalms.

It has been a long road, and it continues. It is rocky, sometimes smooth, winding, and contains many detours. All I can do is buckle up and keep on driving.

 

Please say a prayer for my Uncle Jeff’s father, Seymour, who passed away yesterday. He was at many family gatherings and made an impact in my life as well as many others. I know he is up in Heaven talking with Dad about insurance and telling stories with my Grandpa. 

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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twilight

a small thing from the weekend: twilight

On Friday evening I went on a walk on campus with my two friends who were visiting from KC. We were wandering around campus until it got dark enough to see fireworks. As we sauntered along we decided to visit the grotto.

You all probably know that the grotto holds a special place in my heart and a strong connection between me and my dad. This visit was a perfect idea since the day had been emotional since last year Dad was in South Bend and I needed some sense of peace.

We arrived at the sacred space and immediately I noticed the soft glow of the lit candles and the slowly darkening sky. It was a beautiful sight.

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After lighting candles the three of us kneeled before the grotto and said our silent prayers. My tears fell and made a pool in the lenses of my glasses.

As I was praying I was moved to connect with Our Lady of Sorrows, which refers to the parts of Mary’s life where she experienced deep sorrow and grief. I felt Dad’s presence in that moment, almost like he was giving me some kind of spiritual nudge.

I stepped back from the kneeler and just gazed at Mary, asking her to help me understand my sadness and how to cope. Then my two friends came to me and hugged me from both sides. We stood there for a moment, all breathing the same air, and just being with each other.

That was a beautiful moment. And so symbolic. Their hug was not only from them, but a hug from Dad and Mama Mary. A physical representation of the spiritual connection that is never severed by death.

I was given a gift in the twilight.

 

 

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looking back

I write this post through a stream of tears and a background of emotion-inducing instrumental music.

The past few days have been the beginning of many rough days to come. I’ve been remembering back to a year ago more intensely recently and it makes my heart hurt to see how much things have changed since then, as well as how fast things changed from the end of June to September last year. Now begins the memories of Dad’s rapid decline and all the suffering we all endured. 

A year ago I had just finished a two week stay in KC with George helping the family get paperwork organized, provide some emotional support, and to bring some joy from a little 8 month old. That is when I started to see how the cancer and treatments were affecting the daily life of Dad and my family.

We did have many positives in those two weeks, however. We were able to go down to Pomona lake with most of my dad’s side of the family and I was able to fish with dad for one last time. I also was able to learn from Grandpa and Grandma how to make the batter and have a fish fry. Priceless moments I will cherish forever. I think we might have known that it would be the last real family campout. And even though I’m deeply sad that it is a reality, I’m extremely glad we were able to spend that precious time together. Looking at the pictures from that day bring a smile before the tears come, which I think is a blessing. 

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A year ago today my family was visiting me in South Bend. We survived a long car ride and Dad was able to experience a road trip with his grandson. I looked at his Facebook page from last year and it was so wonderful to see the photos he posted of George and the captions he delicately typed. I remember the struggles we had with Dad’s treatment (the electrode device on his head) and trying to help with his nausea and lack of appetite. It was so hard for all of us because we wanted desperately for things to be like a normal trip but they just weren’t. The reality of Dad’s decline was really starting to rear it’s ugly head.

But, again, despite all of the suffering we were able to still create amazing memories. We went cherry picking together! Dad even picked some himself and shared some beautiful smiles and laughs with George. We were able to spend a day at the beach near Lake Michigan, which I know was one of his favorite places on Earth. We also visited his favorite Irish pub and reminisced about all the memories we had made there. We even drank margaritas together at a wonderful family dinner at Texas Roadhouse. All of these I look back on now as ‘lasts’.

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All ‘lasts’ except our visit to the grotto. Which in my mind that was not his last visit because he meets me there every time I go light a candle for him. 

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In closing this post, as my crying subsides a little, I am looking back on this time last year with tears and smiles. I want to make sure I remember the good with the bad as a reminder that light can and will shine out of darkness. 

 

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can’t sleep

I can’t sleep. Too many things in my head. And maybe I forgot iced tea has caffeine.

Too many things in my head to write here.

But this passage I read tonight gives a little insight.

“Getting through the day is like walking through a minefield of deadly moments of recollection. 

Just when I have slipped beneath the surface of remembering, drawn there by the benevolent distractions of daily life, the grim new reality suddenly explodes around me, reminding me that everything is terribly, permanently different. And I must absorb the same first brutal shock, the same descending horror, over and over again.

I am deceived by those instances of forgetfulness, yet I am obviously not ready to live every moment with the in alterable truth.”

               From the book Safe Passage: words to help the grieving by Molly Fumia

That is all.

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